Miramax // 2002 // 87 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Bromley // May 5th, 2004
The only thing they didn't have on their perfect date...was any privacy.
Originally shot in 2002, The Third Wheel is the product of Miramax mainstays Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, apparently doing a favor for a friend. Wouldn't it have been easier for all of us if they had just used some of that Good Will Hunting cabbage and bought him a car?
Shy, awkward Stan (Luke Wilson, The Royal Tenenbaums, Old School) can't get up the courage to ask out coworker Diane (Denise Richards, Starship Troopers, Wild Things). When he finally gets up the courage to do it -- after a year and twelve weeks -- imagine his surprise when she says "Yes!" (Actually, it's not that hard to imagine. If she hadn't said "Yes!" there'd be no movie.) The road to Stan's perfectly planned evening, though, is littered with setbacks -- primarily Phil (Jay Lacopo, Glory Daze), whom Stan accidentally hits with his car. Twice. Feeling guilty about the multiple runnings-down, Stan decides to put his date with Diana on hold to tend to Phil, who just may be a bigger loser than Stan. As the night goes on, it begins to look like the couple may never get rid of Phil. He's a Third Wheel...get it?
On the very same day I watched Miramax's The Third Wheel, I was finishing Peter Biskind's new book Down and Dirty Pictures, which chronicles the creation of the studio and the Weinsteins' rise to power in the movie industry. It's a fairly incendiary work, and Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein reportedly hates it (this according to the studio's golden boy, Quentin Tarantino, in the May 2004 issue of Premiere magazine). As much as I tried to disallow Biskind's reportings from coloring my judgment of the film, the Miramax stamp he details in the book is all over this thing. To utterly ignore the recent information I've ingested -- though I'm still conscious of recognizing the source -- would be phony of me. And the only thing phony about me is the extensive plastic surgery I've had. Otherwise, I'm keepin' it real, baby!
The Third Wheel is referenced twice in Biskind's book. The first time it's mentioned, it's in the context of being executive-produced by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and that the director is their "protégé" (whatever that means). This provides the explanation -- though not the justification -- for its existence. The second reference is buried in a quote from Kevin Smith (who has directed four films for Miramax -- five, if you count Dogma), where he groups The Third Wheel in with the "tons of other bulls***" released by Miramax and questions their decision not to release it.
What does all of this mean in a discussion of the film? It demonstrates that Miramax is somewhat careless about films they give the go-ahead to. Prior to the success of the in-house produced She's All That, the studio most likely would not have even considered making a movie like The Third Wheel. That the film would subsequently be shelved for two years is another result of the studio's shortsightedness -- they were so quick to do a favor for Damon and Affleck that they hadn't thought ahead to the finished product. Note to Miramax: try to know what you're making. It will save you a great deal of money, and potentially relieve the filmmakers of a great deal of emotional distress, getting their hopes up on a film on which they've worked hard (even bad films are hard work), only to have it buried by the studio on the same whim that greenlit it.
I also can appreciate that Affleck and Damon are trying to "give something back." I admire the notion that they are consistently providing fledgling filmmakers a window to catch the same kind of break that jumpstarted their careers. They just need to consider some better quality control. I think Project Greenlight is an invaluable creation, and say what you will about Stolen Summer or The Battle of Shaker Heights (both of which are superior to this movie), at least their directors had to prove themselves before being handed a feature. Director Jordan Brady got The Third Wheel simply because he's friends with Ben and Matt, and it shows.
Jay Lacopo, who plays Phil and is also credited with writing the script, seems content to channel Joe Rogan (Fear Factor) rather than develop a performance at all. There's no specific decision made as to what we're supposed to think or feel about Phil. Is he the mentally ill homeless man he comes across as in several scenes? Or is he a comically pathetic and lonely guy with a propensity for stalking, a la Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy? One minute he's the Annoying Guest That Wouldn't Leave, the next he's a stand-up guy going out of his way to help Stan. Our sympathies are all over the place -- we want to like Phil, and the movie seems to want us to, but it's almost determined not to let us. Ultimately, he doesn't really turn out to be any of the above, and the film's punchline about his actual motives are less than satisfying after a 90-minute investment.
Apparently recognizing the paper-thin premise he had to build an entire screenplay around, Lacopo includes a terrible subplot involving Stan's co-workers, spearheaded by Affleck, devoting their evening to an unhealthy preoccupation with Stan's date. They all get together at a party to place bets on how long it will last and how far it will go (not unlike 40 Days and 40 Nights, which I would consider accusing this movie of ripping off if I didn't know they were being made at the same time), even sending out spies to each location of the date to report back progress. Every time the film cuts back to these party scenes, what little narrative momentum it had managed to gain in the previous minutes is destroyed -- the party plot point is not only unfunny, but utterly unbelievable as well. The only reason I can think of for its inclusion is that the writer had simply run out of ideas for the date itself, and needed to pad the running time. Either that, or it was thrown in to give Affleck some business in which to participate.
Nothing can make this movie work -- not even the liberal use of Young M.C.'s "Bust a Move," which the filmmakers employ for irony and kitsch (now had they used something by Tone Loc, this review would read much differently, let me tell you). It's even included over the end credits, while the actors dance and lip-synch along to demonstrate how much fun it was to make the movie -- yet another example of There's Something About Mary ruining movies (I actually love Mary; I just don't care to see it slavishly imitated in every subsequent "outrageous comedy" released).
Despite the blurb on the jacket cover advertising an "irresistible all-star cast," I was surprised to find the cast quite resistible. Luke Wilson approaches the role with his usual brand of deadpan lethargy, which works great when he's got the right people to play off (Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell in Old School come to mind), but he's working without a net here, and, as a result, lands on his face. It may just be my personal prejudice against the character of the Stilleresque loser who continually ends up in precarious positions that could easily be explained (if anyone in these movies actually bothered to communicate), but just ends up so tongue-tied that the situation inevitably gets worse. It can be funny if done exceptionally well (Curb Your Enthusiasm), but usually just ends up maddening (Meet the Parents). Unfortunately, The Third Wheel belongs to the latter classification.
Denise Richards joins the unfortunate ranks of Female Movie Characters Defined by a Single Character Trait. Her performance here, aside from requiring that she look pretty, consists of her laughing. That's it. Rather than create a female character with any kind of dimension, The Third Wheel is content to simply have a girl that laughs. Luckily, her laugh is multifunctional. It serves as a barometer for how Stan is doing on his date -- the more she laughs, the more she obviously likes him. Rather than develop dialogue between the two that would suggest a genuine common interest, the film just has her laugh. The laugh also humanizes her -- she's beautiful, but she's a real person. A person who laughs. While I have no doubt that her laugh is meant to endear her to us, it's too much of a shrill cackle to induce anything but a wince. I recently had to watch a film called Uncovered, in which Kate Beckinsale's only defining characteristic was that she sneezes. Repeatedly. While I will easily take laughing over sneezing, I have to ask: are we so creatively bankrupt that we cannot be bothered to write a believable female character? Must we reduce these characters -- toward whom we are presumably meant to develop some sort of affection -- to a single gimmick? I'm no Denise Richards hater -- she is a nuclear physicist, after all -- but this seemed like an appropriate time for my rant against the severely underwritten female lead.
In addition to plastering his face all over the jacket cover, the film's credits read: "with Ben Affleck as Michael." What is that? Can someone explain that to me? I understand he's the big celebrity, so he gets the "with" credit. But "as Michael"? Just who is Michael, and why should we be so eagerly anticipating his arrival? I could understand it if it was "with Ben Affleck as Richard Simmons," or "with Ben Affleck as Jesus," but Michael? He's not even a memorable character! He has no specific function in the film beyond selling it! All he does is pop up from time to time, spout some seemingly improvised dialogue, and demonstrate what a "good sport he is" by making out with a chubby girl. Get it? She's chubby, and he's a big handsome movie star! I'm no Affleck hater -- the man is the world's second-best deep core driller, after all -- but this seemed like an appropriate time for my rant against the vanity credit.
There's a great deal of talent relegated to the sidelines as well. Look closely and you'll see Jeff Garlin (Curb Your Enthusiasm), Nicole Sullivan (Mad TV), Bobby Slayton (Ed Wood, Bandits), David Koechner (Out Cold, Run Ronnie Run!) and Meredith Salenger (Natty Gann! Natty Gann!) in miniscule supporting roles. Lauren Graham, she of Gilmore Girls and Bad Santa-hottie fame, doesn't even have lines -- she's an extra at a party. Would she not have made an infinitely more interesting Diane than Denise Richards? I'm all for casting talented and funny people in supporting roles, but it might be giving the filmmakers too much credit to suggest that they knew exactly what they had on their hands. The whole thing seems like an oversight.
The disc itself is pretty much equivocal to the quality of the movie it's representing. It's obvious that not a great deal of time, money, or supervision went into creating the transfer, but the print is new enough (and hasn't really ever seen the light of day) that it hasn't made much difference. The audio track is fairly muddy as well -- more than once I was forced to make a decision between turning my volume up unnaturally high or activating the English subtitles (the subtitles won, because they counted as my "reading" for the week). There are virtually no extras, save for a brief Miramax promotional spot and a trailer for Duplex (another of the studio's shelf-and-dump titles, albeit one that at least received a theatrical release).
While The Third Wheel might do some swift rental business due to the carefully calculated star placement on the cover, the exorbitant retail price Miramax has slapped on this disc (Amazon lists it at over $25) is akin to extortion. It will be banished to the bargain bins at your local Wal-Mart soon enough, and if you absolutely must complete your Denise Richards library, at least wait until then. Just remember -- you may have all of her films, but Chuck Sheen's got her heart.
Miramax hasn't done anything out of the ordinary -- for them, at least. Affleck and Damon have already made Paycheck and Stuck On You, respectively, and Denise Richards had a Sheen baby. Haven't these people suffered enough?
Review content copyright © 2004 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Bonus Trailers